February 11, 2008


Two essential facts about the presidential campaign:

1. Of the present candidates who could possibly be elected, Barack Obama is clearly the best.

2. This is more cause for concern than for hope.

Symbolizing the new Middle Ages in which we live - in which thought and action are guided by media-driven myth (as opposed to the church-driven myth of the earlier medieval era) - Obama has arrived at his status without record, without programs and without a vision beyond a collection of trite but effective evangelical cliches. He is, however, of the right mythical looks, age and color.

Early in the campaign, I compared him to Chauncy Gardiner aka Chance the Gardener, an earlier manifestation of magnificent nothingness to appear on the American political scene - albeit the fiction of Chance was safely contained in the movie "Being There" while Obama was running for election to a real White House.

In the final scene, reports Wikipedia, "Chance is seen apparently walking across the surface of a lake while the most important movers and shakers in the USA discuss running him for President. This scene continues to generate discussion and controversy. Clearly we see Chance walking on water, an act with a clear biblical reference. . . Is there a prosaic explanation, such as hidden stepping-stones? Or is Chance the Savior (as so many of the characters are looking for)? Does he truly possess some special grace, given his simple innocence and simply being present to each moment without filters and ideas? In his 2001 book, The Great Movies, Roger Ebert argues for the latter interpretation. Another view is that the director (and the author) are simply asking the audience: "How much more would you have believed? We've been kidding you all along you know!"

The novel upon which the movie was based was written over thirty years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. The Obama candidacy may elevate Kosinksi to one of the most prescient political authors of modern times. After all, what is more Obamesque than the sort of phrase that got Chance started? - "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

If you think that's an exaggeration, consider this from Chauncy Obama: "If you're walking down the right path and you're willing to keep walking, eventually you'll make progress."

So here we are. We don't know what we have and we don't know what we're going to get. But to many it looks great.

Yet one thing is certain. The current mindless infatuation of Obama's supporters, while harmless enough with a rock star, will do our politics and our lives no good.

We have, after all, some experience with this. Obama isn't the first Democratic candidate to try to ride into town on the back of hope. Bill Clinton brought the whole town of Hope with him but by the end of his first term the word had all but dropped from sight.

Instead, Clinton mangled the social democracy of his predecessors, raised corruption to new heights and paved the way for the Bush regime, aided in no small part by the groupiesque infatuation among the liberal class.

If there was one thing we should have learned from the Clinton years is the danger of adoring politicians instead of pragmatically using them.

Sadly, however, the last presidential candidate to even hint at this was Eugene Debs who said once, "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could for if you could be led out, you could be led back again."

Instead, we have a candidate who declares, "We are the ones we've been waiting for. . . We are the change that we seek."

Instead, we have a candidate who says, "My job this morning is to be so persuasive . . . that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Barack."

As Joe Klein noted in Time, "the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause - other than an amorphous desire for change - the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is."

The blogger Barhu writes, "What I find interesting about Obama is how narcissistic he is with his own rhetorical gifts. With so many millions of people finding so much inspiration in his rhetoric, what is it, exactly, that he is trying to inspire them to do? Has he made appeals to his young followers to join the military, the Peace Corps, Teach For America? Has he inspired them to give back to his country, to seek out public service, to serve, as John McCain has implored his followers, a cause greater than ourselves? Has he inspired his over-educated, overpaid followers to raise money for victims of Katrina or the tornadoes, to lobby for higher taxes, to sacrifice any of their wealth or intellect in the service of America? Has he tried, in any way, shape or form, to use his gifts to inspire his minions to become apart of the fabric of public service, to improve our nation through volunteerism, charitable donations, self service of any kind whatsoever?

"No. The only thing Barack Obama has ever inspired anyone to do is vote for Barack Obama."

This is the technique of generations of hustlers, many of them generating their con from the pulpit, others leading pseudo-psychological workshops, and a few - the most dangerous - with whole armies behind them. If you listen to Obama with any sense of history, you can not but be concerned.

Still the alternative is the atrocious Clinton or the egregious McCain and there is no suggestion here that these are better choices. Only that voters - instead of being reduced to hand clapping, check writing automatons - understand what they are getting with their vote and that, if that vote succeeds, they must be constantly on guard, know when to oppose and when to, as Pogo once put it, stand up on the piano and demand outrage action. We are not getting a savior, but at best an occasional ally.

We should be no less cautious of our politicians than the Roman Church is of its potential saints. The Guardian described John Paul II as having to go through the following:

"Theological experts will review John Paul's published works to determine if they are theologically sound, a historical commission will gather information to document his life, and Rev D'Alonzo and Monsignour Oder will start interviewing witnesses.

"When the material is gathered, the Vatican appoints a commission to review the case and make a final report to the Pope for him to decide if John Paul led a life of 'heroic virtue'".

"If he does, and the Vatican then confirms a miracle has occurred after John Paul's death thanks to his intercession, he can be beatified. A second miracle is needed for him to be made a saint."

Mind you, we are choosing something far more important than a mere saint; we are selecting a president - and, theoretically, not one to serve but to serve us. To the extent we ignore this difference, we approach the point described by Albert Camus to a German friend after the Second World War: "This is what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours the truth."